Research shows that rural communities are left behind due to poor digital infrastructure

Two of our studies were focused on Ceredigion in Wales. The lack of reliable digital infrastructure exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on families and businesses. The lack of digital connectivity and accessibility exacerbated stress levels in families already juggling homeschooling and working at home.

Businesses also had to deal with internet availability, digital infrastructure, and digital competency issues when working from home.

Two online surveys were used in our research. The first survey was aimed at households, while the second focused on small businesses and self-employed people between April and June of 2021. The survey questions addressed the challenges and the opportunities that the pandemic brought.

In both surveys, we found that there were some common themes. The responses to both surveys revealed some important themes. These included insufficient digital connectivity and accessibility, lack of digital training and skills opportunities, and the high cost of broadband and mobile.

Experiences in the Household

In our research, we found that 12% of homes did not possess enough digital equipment to meet their needs. 76% of those households included home-schooled children. Some schools and workplaces supplied equipment, but 18% had to borrow it.

Many homes were forced to share equipment between adults doing homework and children who learned online. Many students relied on mobile devices for accessing lessons, while other pupils lacked equipment such as printers.

In rural and remote areas, the problems are exacerbated by slow broadband speeds and an inability to get a reliable mobile signal. The cost of mobile and broadband access, the lack or training opportunities for digital skills, and poor customer service by broadband providers were also issues.

The digital connectivity issues experienced by respondents to the survey. Igboekwu Plotnikova & Lindop (Author provided)

Experiences in business and self-employment

Businesses faced similar challenges during the pandemic. The pandemic caused the closure of firms that were not essential. This led to an explosion in e-commerce. Online sales allowed companies to continue operations despite restrictions and lockdowns.

Businesses that were slow in adopting e-commerce or who lacked the necessary infrastructure struggled to adapt. Our research revealed that 47% faced problems with digital connectivity and access during the pandemic. Other issues that businesses faced included:

* lack of reliable mobile or broadband (37%)

* Slow broadband speed (29%)

Poor mobile signal (26%)

Lack of digital skills or training (16%)

Cost of access to the Internet (13%)

Rural workers also face problems because of a lack of digital infrastructure, poor connectivity, and lack of digital skills.

Rural communities are falling behind in terms of digital infrastructure. Chris Howes/Alamy

Bridging the Gap

In the future, those who do not have adequate internet access will be further disadvantaged by an increasing reliance on online services such as health care and welfare. The digital divide between those with high incomes and those who have lower payments is growing.

In contrast to households with lower incomes, those with higher incomes are more likely than those with lower incomes to have access to technology during the pandemic for remote working and homeschooling.

Location is also a factor that determines the gap in digital technology access. In remote and sparsely-populated areas, mobile and broadband coverage is often inadequate. This digital divide must be bridged for economic growth, inclusion of the social sector, and access to basic services.

Read more: How teachers supported children and parents through COVID-19 school closures.

To address the digital divide, the UK and devolved governments need to invest in digital infrastructure in rural areas to ensure that everywhere has at least a minimum quality coverage. Local authorities could introduce schemes that enable people to gain access to cost-effective computer devices and internet access.

It is important also to expand digital literacy in rural areas and empower businesses. Developing digital skills would prepare future generations better for the digital world.

To enable digital growth and sustainability, rural businesses need tailored support such as funding to upgrade digital infrastructure, training, and guidance on privacy and consumer protection.

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